IDEO Seminars

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We currently offer four seminars:

  1. A public seminar, devoted to the Arab-Muslim culture. About two sessions monthly, either in Arabic, or French or English. Free of charge and open to all. Subscribe here to receive the invitations. Click here to read the reports of the previous sessions.
  2. A joint seminar al-Azhar-IDEO in Islamic Studies for the French-speaking students at al-Azhar University. Click here to read the reports of the previous sessions. This seminar is organized as part of the cooperation between us and al-Azhar University.
  3. An introductory seminar to Islamic philosophy and theology. One session weekly, in English, for the Institute’s fellows.
  4. The Massignon Seminar, a research seminar for the members of the Institute.
  5. International conferences, in Cairo or elsewhere, whose proceedings are published in MIDEO. Click here to read the reports of these conferences.

The issue of the existence of God in Ibn Taymiyya

Adrien Candiard

Member of the IDEO and PhD student in Islamic studies

icon-calendar May 22, 2018

For Heidegger (1889‒1976), if metaphysics failed in its project, it is because it identified the “Being” with God, transforming into a sterile onto-theology. This description undoubtedly applies to Avicenna (d. 428/1037), for whom the proof of God’s existence finds itself in the necessity that there be an end to the chain of causalities. God is the necessary Being who has no cause other than himself.

This proof of the existence of God is repugnant to Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328), not only because it is rooted in logical human tools, incapable by definition of reaching the divine being, but also because it is valid only inside the world of logic, without saying anything about the actual existence of God.

Among all of Ibn Taymiyya’s philosophical refutations, his refutation of al-Siǧistānī (d. after 361/971) in Darʾ al-taʿāruḍ bayna al-ʿaql wa-l-naql is particularly interesting. In his Kitāb al-maqālīd al-malakūtiyya, al-Siǧistānī criticizes the Avicennian definition of the existence of God as the ‘necessary being’ (wāǧib al-wuǧūd) because it makes God a composite being, as he would share the fact of “being” with his creatures, yet would have his own kind of being, the “necessary being.” Al-Siǧistānī then explains that the “being” of God has nothing to do with the “being” of creatures. Ibn Taymiyya criticizes this position, which ultimately amounts to saying that God does not exist, because we cannot say of him that he is nor that he isn’t, which is contradictory according to the laws of logic itself.

For Ibn Taymiyya, this contradiction is based on an error shared by all philosophers, namely that they believe that existence, which is only a concept, has real existence.  “Existence,” like all universals, does not exist outside our mind. It is meaningless to seek to demonstrate God by a conceptual way that can only reach concepts without real existence; we must find a direct way. However, precisely, man knows that God exists because of an innate natural faculty, the fiṭra. There is no need to mediate concepts to know that God exists. In addition, if someone refuses to recognize that God exists, it is simply because his fiṭra is sick.

The problem with such a solution (a nominalist one for sure) is that it cannot be refuted. Anyone who questions Ibn Taymiyya’s thinking would only prove that his fiṭra is deficient.

Spiritual progress and intellectual progress

Seminar al-Azhar University and the IDEO

icon-calendar May 7, 2018

On May 7th, the latest session of our joint seminar between Al-Azhar and IDEO took place at the Faculty of Languages and Translations at Al-Azhar University. The chosen topic was “Faith and Reason”, based on a commentary by the famous Egyptian preacher Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (1917‒1996) in his book The Pillars of Faith, Between Reason and Heart (Rakāʾiz al-īmān, bayn al-ʿaql wa-l-qalb, 1974). The chapter studied was entitled “The gap between spiritual progress and intellectual progress”.

In this chapter, the author first calls for a piety that is not a detriment to the human person and his development. He then describes the world as lost in a sterile materialism and a wandering rationalism, cut off from faith in God.  He does this before making the observation that neither Judaism, Christianity, nor Islam today provide convincing answers to man’s spiritual equilibrium. The author concludes with a call to put into practice a true Islam, which orders good and forbids evil.

The three speakers presented various aspects of the text. Jean Druel, O.P studied the literary construction of the text, Mrs. Héba Mahrous showed how the author’s vision fits into a more general Muslim framework, and Mr. Ahmad al-Shamli placed this chapter within the framework of the work as a whole.

The discussion that followed opened the following questions: is the text, with a clear apologetic scope, the best approach for a philosophical and theological questioning?   How can one discuss the generalizations that characterize this literary genre of preaching? How does one evaluate the use of the human sciences in this text? The mere fact that the author references non-Muslim authors (i.e. ToynbeeCarrel) is proof of openness in itself. However, in the scheme of the text, the human sciences also serve as an argument to the idea that man has a very limited knowledge of himself and that one must trust that God is better equipped to say who man is and what he needs. Finally, it seems that the author simply associates “reason” with “Islam”, which automatically removes the tension with faith, without further discussion. Yet, a consequence of this equating reason and Islam is that other religions are then necessarily irrational as they are not Islam.

Finally, the author’s conclusion on the need “to order The Good and to prohibit The Evil” (al-amr bi-l-maʿrūf wa-l-nahy ʿan al-munkar) is extremely ambiguous because al-Ghazālī makes no effort to insist on the difficulty of observing right from wrong in particular situations.

From the Political to the Historiographical Use of Poetry

Noëmie Lucas

PhD candidate, Paris Panthéon-Sorbonne University

icon-calendar April 30, 2018

In his work Ansāb al-ašrāf, al-Balāḏurī (d. 279/892?) relates an episode of the construction of the canal “al-Mubārak” by Ḫālid b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Qasrī (d. 126/743), the governor of Iraq at the time. He was praised by the poet al-Farazdaq (d. 110/728?) then mocked by him, as a way to get revenge on Ḫālid who did not reward him for his initial praise. Al-Farazdaq was imprisoned for this insult, then finally released by the grace of the Caliph Hišam b ʿAbd al-Malik (r. 724-743), after which he wrote poetic verses of praise about him.

The text of al-Balāḏurī integrates these famous verses into its historical narrative in prose, to the extent that one may wonder if the narrative prose is not, in reality, the historical contextualisation of these verses, even though researchers tend to consider them as a simple illustrations of historical prose.

This impression is reinforced, for example, by the different historical contextualization that Abū al-Faraǧ al-Aṣfahānī (d. after 362/972) gives of the same verses in his Kitāb al-aġānī.

However, the reality is probably in between these two extreme points of view, one that would make poetry a simple illustration of historical narrative and the other that would make historical narrative a commentary on the poetry cited. Poetry plays a major role in pre-Islamic culture as it creates and destroys reputations, records events, builds history, relies on the authority of feared and respected characters, has an aesthetic role… In a word, it is one with the text and it is by holding the two together, verse and prose, that one must read and interpret these ancient historical sources.

The Interaction Between Twelver Shiites and Christians: History, Theology, Literature

icon-calendar April 11‒13, 2018

The IDEO, in partnership with ISTR in Paris (Institute of Science and Theology of Religions) and GRIEM (Interdisciplinary Research Group on Missionary Writings), organized a conference sponsored by the associations “Friends of IDEO” and the “Œuvre d’Orient” from April 11-13th, 2018 on the interaction between Twelver Shiites and Christians. Several internationally renowned specialists participated, including Professors Rudi Mathee and Francis Richard. A delegation of researchers from Iraq and the al-Khoei Institute also participated.

Focusing on interactions, this conference aimed to explore travel accounts, missionary writings, theological texts, embassy reports, and manuscripts in order examine the nature of how one group viewed the other, the types of exchanges that were made, and the relations between these groups. The conference also sought to show the evolution of identity, as each group underwent transformations due to these interactions within the pluralistic political contexts of their times.

We demonstrated that the existence of these exchanges was made possible by a theological necessity on the part the Shiites, as well as a theological and spiritual proximity related to the theology of redemption and the Shiite fascination of the God of love.  Economic arguments were also put forth, as the absence of subsidies coming from Europe forced missionary communities into economic exchanges in the world in which they lived, sometimes at the expense of violating their own rules. Political issues were also discussed, such as the rivalry between the Ottomans, the Mughals, and the Safavids, which made alliances with Christians necessary. These alliances gave rise to expressions of friendship and esteem for the other. Curiosity and empathy were also noted, and we were able to speak of “Christianophilia” on the part of the Shiites.

However, far from wishing to idealize the past, history also records the partial and sometimes negative perceptions of the other. Historically, ulamas were able to demand that Christians be driven away or demand their conversion. Often mentioned are the tragic situation of the Armenians and the domination of controversies. Whether real or fictional, these controversies circulated beyond the empire, and has thus carried trans-historical argumentation against the other. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, controversies were couched in a more aggressive, political argumentation, as they were often created by the State, thus showing the politicization of Christian-Shiite relations in this time.

There was also a question of Christian missionary activities, the nature of which varies according to the order, such as the Capuchins, Carmelites, or Jesuits. Faced with the lack Muslim conversions, missionaries questioned their formation, the need to develop new argumentations, the possible impact of converts as the main agents in the mission, which populations were to be targeted as a priority, the possible support of Muslim spiritual circles, and the Persian poetic heritage…

Cultural, spiritual, or religious interactions are visible at the level of the invocation of saints, iconography, and the presentation of the gospels with a Christian basmala at the beginning of each gospel…

Finally, did these exchanges, interactions lead to a better understanding of the other? Certainly. However, the missionary reports, travel accounts, and theological works often reveal partial knowledge, notwithstanding the desire to make the other more well known.

The proceedings of this conference will be published in the MIDEO 35 (2020).

The epistemology of Ibn Taymiyya

Seminar al-Azhar University and the IDEO

icon-calendar March 22, 2018

For this new session of our joint seminar between Al-Azhar and IDEO, we chose to comment on the same text, in order to highlight the processes of interpretation we use and to exchange our approaches. We chose an extract from a text by Ibn Taymiyya, which was commented on by three researchers: Adrien Candiard, OP, IDEO member, Mrs. Héba El-Zéftaoui, Assistant Professor, Mr. Ziyad Farrouh, University lecturer.

Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328) is an extremely prolific writer who spent his life writing treatises and fatwās, most of which violently attack the scholars of his time, especially the Shiites, the Christians, and the Sufis of the school of Ibn ʿArabī (m. 638/1240). Ibn Taymiyya, a man of keen intelligence, criticizes the Muslim tradition for not having achieved any definitive result in achieving knowledge of God, but rather engage in scholastic conflicts and fantasies about God.

In the long introductory fatwā to his book Darʾ taʿāruḍ al-ʿaql wa-l-naql, Ibn Taymiyya offers a justification for the human possibility of being able to speak about God, as well as a rational method so as to not going astray. He, at the same time, differs from the Ašʿarites, represented by Faḫr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606/1209), who always defer reason (ʿaql), and the Ḥanbalites, of which he himself was a disciple and who are represented, for example, by Ibn Qudāma (d. 620/1223), who always defer to tradition (naql). He criticizes the idea that one has to choose between the two. Human reason and revealed tradition are not in opposition. Rather, they must be able to express the same truth about God.

The epistemological way explored by Ibn Taymiyya is based on the principle that the only sure and true thing is God himself, that He reveals His word in a rational way which is accessible to human intelligence. Moreover, since God is transcendent, none of our human methods of logical analysis apply to him, and rather than using syllogism (qiyās šumūl) or analogy (qiyās tamṯīl), Ibn Taymiyya describes the method he finds at work in the Qurʾān and the hadiths: the “Eminence way” (qiyās awlā), according to which we can attribute to God all perfections. In doing so, it goes beyond the debate over divine attributes, between unicity (the attributes of God are analogous to human attributes) and equivocity (divine attributes have no relation to human attributes).

More fundamentally, Ibn Taymiyya rejects any reasoning that would be a pure logical game of language. He finds it more certain to start from the revealed given (i.e. the Qurʾān and Ḥadīṯ), and then build logical reasoning. In other words, he is nominalist: he refuses to confuse mental realities and reality itself, and criticizes theologians, rationalists, or traditionalists who believe that the fruit of their rationalization express some reality about God. Essentially, we can say that Ibn Taymiyya built analogies based on the revealed text and not on the “eternal” truths elaborated by the human mind.

The three presentations emphasized different points, historical or theological. The discussion demonstrated that Ašʿarism, which is the official school of theology followed by al-Azhar, has developed, and that the attacks of Ibn Taymiyya in the fourteenth century are not always relevant today. However, all theological schools are taught at the university in the theological faculties, and not just Ašʿarism.

The question with which we closed our discussions was that of the place of faith between reason and tradition. This will be the topic of our next meeting at the end of April.

The emergence of Ḥadīṯ as the authority of knowledge between the 4ᵗʰ/10ᵗʰ and the 8ᵗʰ/14ᵗʰ centuries

icon-calendar January 11‒13, 2018

On January 11, 12 and 13, the Dominican Institute has organised in partnership with the French Institute an international conference dedicated to Ḥadīṯ. Our two guest speakers were Dr. Aisha Geissinger (Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada) and Prof. Walid Saleh (Toronto University, Canada). We hosted 7 lectures in Arabic the first day, 5 lectures in English the second day, and two workshops the third day, one in Arabic and one in English. Here are the main issues discussed during the workshops and the concluding session:

1- Questions of methodology: how to study Ḥadīṯ today? As a literary corpus, as a source of law, as an object of piety binding its reader to the person of the Prophet, as a witness to a given historical context…

2- The question of the relevance of the use of contemporary human sciences, and thus of dealing with a sacred corpus in a profane manner (Quran, Ḥadīṯ).

3- The question of historical criticism: legitimate or not, relying on canonical corpus or composing new ones, with which tools… for what purpose? Evaluation of the isnād and/or the matn?

4- The question of blind spots in the history of Ḥadīṯ: voices that are not expressed, women, minorities,… How can we write a history that takes into account what is not documented, the point of view of those who are dominated or silenced?

5- The question of “reason” (ʿaql), which lacks, in Arabic, a working definition, allowing everyone to claim it for themselves, or to refuse it to others. It seems that researchers in reality often confuse “reason” (ʿaql) as capacity and “rationalities” (ʿaqlāniyyyāt) as its implementations.

6- The presence of several persons from Muslim minorities during the colloquium (one Omani Ibadi, two Saudis Ismailis, two Iraqi Shiites) also opened the debate on the different readings of Ḥadīṯ.

7- The question of the “scientific miracle” (cf. Bucaille), which always finds followers, including in the field of Ḥadīṯ.

The concluding session

During the concluding session, Walid and Aisha emphasized one or another of these points. However, the issue of the emergence of Ḥadīt as a source of authority was not addressed as such. If Ruggero Sanseverino has dealt with the epistemological question of its authority, to link it spiritually (and not mechanically) to the person of the Prophet, the other interventions have approached the question of the authority of Ḥadīṯ in a given context, in a given science, in a given author. But none of them studied the issue over a long period of time, and neither the workshops nor the concluding session tried to do so. One of most exciting aspects of the conference was probably the fact that it connected scholars from the West with scholars from Egypt, which is probably why the methodological issues took such an importance during the workshops.

The proceedings of this conference will be published in MIDEO 34 (2019).

No one will be saved if all are not saved

Guillaume de Vaulx

Doctor of Philosophy and IDEO member

icon-calendar December 12, 2017

It is impossible to hold these three statements at the same time: 1) “God wants all people to be saved”, 2) “God shows people a path of salvation”, and 3) “Anyone who does not follow this path cannot be saved”. Either God wants the salvation for all, in which case He cannot impose only one path of salvation; or He imposes a particular path, in which case He risks that some will not follow it. And in any case, whatever the revealed path, it is only given to a given group, at a given time, condemning those who lived prior to or far from the place of this revelation.

The author of Rasāʾil Iḫwān al-ṣafā, whom Guillaume de Vaulx believes to have discovered to be Aḥmad al-Ṭayyib al-Saraḫrsī (d. 286/899), offers an original solution within a Muslim context. For him, the world is built on complementary relationships: no one person can have all skills, per se. Rather, together, we have all skills. This principle of complementarity is valid not only in everyday life, but also for eternal salvation. individually, we cannot achieve salvation, but together, each according to his religion and beliefs, we are able to achieve salvation for all, because salvation is beyond what any of us can achieve alone.

Literalism

Seminar al-Azhar University and the IDEO

icon-calendar  November 27, 2017

A new session of the joint meetings, organized as part of the collaboration between the University of al-Azhar and the IDEO to discuss the issue of extremism, took place on Monday, November 27, 2017 at the Faculty of Human Sciences (for Women) on the topic of literalism.

Three lectures representing both sides were given.

Khalil Mahmoud, lecturer in the Department of Islamic Studies of the Faculty of Language and Translation (for Men), began by discussing the characteristic features of the extremist reading of the Qur’anic text, as well as the many interpretations and deviations that might occur from any work that does not take into account exegesis of the All-Wise Qurʾān. He then warned against the ignorance and negligence of some very important elements for understanding the divine message, such as the conceptual and contextual frameworks, in addition to the causes and circumstances of the revelation of the Qurʾānic verses. He also tried to highlight the weakness of a literalist reading of fundamental texts in that there is an absence of a sufficient theory of exegesis.

Jean Druel, OP, Director of the IDEO, followed with his talk and approached the subject by beginning from a reading from an article by Gilles Dorival (Professor Emeritus at Aix-Marseille University and Specialist in the History of Biblical Traditions) on biblical interpretation, so as to pose some very important questions: what is meant by “interpretation”? Does the reader intervene or not in the building of meaning? Can he rely on his personal knowledge? Starting from Théagène de Régégium (6th century BC), who was one of the first to ask the question of interpretation in the face of Homeric poetry and propose an allegorical exegesis. These texts contain several meanings: an apparent first meaning and several types of hidden meanings that the reader is invited to build. In the same perspective, and always around the question of the interpretation, Jean Druel, OP mentions the contribution of Philo of Alexandria (1st century AD) for the application of allegorical exegesis to the Bible, an exegesis that made it possible to rid certain difficulties from a literal meaning. Jean Druel, O.P also recalls Cassian‘s thought (5th century) regarding the foundations of Sacred Scripture and the richness of the spiritual doctrine of the four senses (or levels) of reading proposed by Judaism and Christianity: literal, allegorical, tropological and anagogical.  He ends his reflection by raising the public’s attention to the following facts: there is no sense independent of the reader. The literal meaning itself is not immediate, it must be constructed, and this requires the deployment of adequate tools and knowledge, constantly taking into account the evolution of words and connotations. These are all things that would make it possible to avoid the impoverishment of meaning and literalism which he describes as the “disease of interpretation”.

Miss Merihan Ali, teaching assistant in the Department of French Language, Literature and Interpretation, began her presentation with a definition of the notion of “literalism” and a distinction between the latter and another bordering notion, namely “literality.” She chose to divide her presentation into three parts representing the three fields of application of the notion studied. First, Islamic literalism and doctrine, where she emphasized the importance of critical reading and reasoning (iǧtihād) to find a way of fidelity that is not blind to the evolution of time and to the diversity of societies. Second, literalism and Qurʾānic interpretation, in which she put forth a number of examples of literalist translations of some Qurʾānic verses and Sunna texts, in order to show the detrimental effect any wrong interpretation would have that would aim to issue jurisprudential opinions without possessing the necessary skills. And third, biblical literalism and interpretation, where she highlighted allegory as a process of interpretation of biblical Scripture widely used by Jewish and Christian exegetes over the centuries.

She then finished her talk by concluding that even if the truth of the divine Word is absolute, it does not mean that we have access to this truth. It is only by means of an objective reading of the text, which gives rise to a plurality of interpretations and gives way to reason, meditation, and iǧtihād which can free the spirit from divine revelation.

The three presentations gave rise to a very rich discussion, during which Professor Roqaya Gabr recalled the importance of the work of grouping and translation done by a group of specialists (exegetes certified by al-Azhar) as part of a project of the Ministry of Waqfs: al-Montakhab, Selection in the Exegesis of the Holy Quran, Arabic-French in 4 volumes. The Higher Council for Islamic Affairs, affiliated with al-Azhar, published the first version of al-Montakhab in 1997.

For his part, Rémi Chéno, O.P praised the effort of al-Azhar while drawing attention to the need to respect the openness of a text and to accept the fact that it is open to multiple interpretations.

Prof. Sahar Samir Youssef, Head of the French Section, Faculty of Human Sciences (Women).

The Plans for the City of the Dead in Cairo

Ahmed Gomaa

Doctor from al-Azhar University

icon-calendar November 28, 2017

The city of Cairo has this special feature of having neighborhoods in cemeteries where you can also find mosques, schools for teaching the Qurʾān, steam rooms, and palaces, which amazed Ibn Ǧubayr (d. 614/1217) in his Riḥla. This phenomenon, which began with a combination of circumstances in the Fatimid era (beginning in the 4th/10th century), became a conscious decision on the part the Mamluks who deliberately built houses in these quiet neighborhoods starting in the 7th/ 13th century.

This explains the existence of a very particular literary genre which exists only in Cairo. It also consists of real “tour guides” of these districts of the dead, known as qarāfa (plural qarāfāt) in Egyptian Arabic, probably in reference to the Banū Qarāfa tribe who had previously moved into this area. They are different from the kutub al-ziyārāt (“books of visits”) found in other parts of the Muslim world, especially since they never discuss the legal question of the lawfulness of these visits. Rather, they are limited to descriptions of the tombs and other buildings, as well as to the biographies of the people buried there.

There are 25 of these books, written between the 6th/12th and 13th/19th centuries, only some of which having survived to today. They are organized either geographically (grave by grave), by the order of the visit, by categories of death (scientists, mystics, midwives, etc.), or by year of death. The most famous of these works is probably the Kitāb al-kawākib al-sayyāra by Ibn al-Zayyāt (d. 805/1402).